Why are Myths Romanticized?


18th Century and the Romantic Movement

In the late eighteenth century, there was a movement away from the rational thinking of the Enlightenment to an emphasis on emotions and the inner self thought of as the ultimate truth. Myths took on a new meaning during the Romantic Movement (1789-1832) and challenged the Enlightenment’s search for un-mysterious explanations of natural phenomena. The nineteenth century marked a shift from an agrarian culture to increased trade and industrialization. Romanticism was a reaction against the social evils caused by industrialization and aristocracy.

Romantics argued against Enlightenment ideas that myths were “primitive” and “irrational.” Instead, they argued that myth serves to allay anxiety over the world. In this interpretation, myth transforms an indifferent world into one cared for by the gods. Also, new myths are not constantly being created but reworked to remain effective in society. In other words, there are no new myths, only re-interpretations of older ones. A change in an older myth does not mean the myth is beginning to lose its function and will disappear from society; on the contrary, a change in a myth updates the myth with modern relevancy. Consequently, myths are not static or relics of the past. New myths create new questions and offer insight into old questions, like the meaning of existence.

For the Romantics, myth became a way to link the modern self with nature, and civilization was ruining people and that humans belonged in nature. Natural modes of thought, such as feelings and intuition, were considered superior to the rationality of Enlightenment thinkers. Hence passion, not reason, led to personal truth. Emotions showed the depth of the soul, gave insight into the personality, and allowed people to explore the relationship between self and other and self and nature. It is no mistake that during the Romantic period, the Goddess images reemerged.

Romanticism provided a platform to explore emotions, which eventually became psychology and the modern conception of individualism and existentialism. The experience that myths relayed was considered more authentic than the art and poetry of the European aristocracy. Most importantly, myth became a way to access transcendence in middle-class literary circles.

Further Reading

Jean Jacques Rousseau – An influential Romantic (b.1712).

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